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State of the Rockets: Danuel House's peculiar play, Russell Westb​rook's efficiency, James Harden's defense and more

Rockets' advanced stats (per cleaningtheglass.com):

As of last week:

Offensive RTG: 113.8 (3rd)

Defensive RTG: 108.7 (15th)

Net RTG: +5.1 (6th)

As of this week:

Offensive RTG: 113.3 (4th)

Defensive RTG: 109.4 (15th)

Net RTG: +3.9 (9th)

Biggest developments:

1. Rockets lose three games in a row

It may seem too obvious to put this here, but it's certainly the biggest development of the week. The Rockets are in a rough spot, and that's something you'll hear from the players and coaches. Games have been lost, team meetings have been had, and things haven't turned around quite yet. It's possible that this is just a tough spot and it'll eventually turn around for Houston (P.J. Tucker certainly thinks so), but an outside observer will tell you this looks like a spiraling basketball team and it would be totally inbounds to have that opinion.

Over the past three games, the Rockets have a -11.5 point differential per 100 possessions (24th in the league in that span). Houston's loss Saturday night was particularly bad because not only were the Lakers without Anthony Davis, but going into it, the team had already lost three out of their previous four games. It was a must-win in every sense of the phrase.

2. Austin Rivers sprains right thumb

The extent of the damage to River's right thumb is still unknown, but considering the rail-thin nature of this roster, this is a big deal. Mike D'Antoni said that Rivers suffered this injury against Memphis and talked about possible ligament damage. With Rivers out, the Rockets only have Eric Gordon as a good option to defend ball handlers.

3. Danuel House continues his slump

This storyline is completely bizarre. How does one go from a pretty good starter to a below average NBA rotation player? House had become a reliable shooter and somewhat capable defender for houston until the calendar flipped. Ever since December 29th (22 points against New Orleans), House has only had one double-digit game in which he scored 10 points on 3 of 9 shooting from the field. While it's true that Ben McLemore has House in the rotation, House has proven in the past that he can perform well off the bench. Until there is word about a possible injury, we must assume that his is just a very bad slump for House.

4. Isaiah Hartenstein falls out of the rotation

Up until this week, it looked like Isaiah Hartenstein was finally going to get a fair crack at the backup center spot. Everything seemed to crescendo on January 11th against the Timberwolves where Hartenstein had an impressive stat-line of 17 points, 15 rebounds, 5 blocks, 2 steals, and 1 assist on 8 of 9 shooting from the field. Ever since that night, he's played a grand total of five minutes. It's hard to justify this considering it really looked like Hartenstein had proved his worth as a solid backup option to Clint Capela, but Mike D'Antoni's instinct has been to go small with P.J. Tucker at backup center or even give Tyson Chandler minutes in the case of the Lakers game.

You give a hall of famer like Mike D'Antoni the benefit of the doubt of 99.9% of things relating to the roster he's coaching, but it's only natural to question his judgement when it relates to Hartenstein.

Week of games in review:

When you lose three games in a row, there's really not much to say other than "the team has been bad". The fact that two of these losses have come against below .500 teams is truly what makes it worse.

Questions for the coming week:

1. Has Russell Westbrook turned a corner on his efficiency?

Lost in the shuffle of how bad the Rockets have been is how well Russell Westbrook has been playing as of late. Over his last four games, Westbrook has logged at least 30 points and 5 assists on at least 54.7% true shooting. Westbrook's regular season efficiency numbers have ticked up a little from below 50% true shooting to 51.4% at the moment. For his career, Westbrook is shooting 52.8% true shooting and it'll be interesting if he can get back to that mark.

All season, Westbrook's production and efficiency has been been compared to that of Chris Paul's. And while that is perfectly logical and fair to do considering this was a straight one for one player swap with picks attached to Paul, that isn't the central question for Houston this season. The relevant question isn't "Is Chris Paul playing better than Russell Westbrook in 2019-20?", it's "Is Russell Westbrook good enough to be the second best player on a title contender in 2019-20?" All the other stuff are just macro-evaluations of the trade and evaluating Houston's future prospects. That stuff is important, but it's not the most important for the Rockets this season.

It'll be interesting if Westbrook's percentages drop, stabilize, or even rise up from these current percentages.

2. Will James Harden start caring about his effort on defense again?

It seems fans have shifted all their ire towards head coach Mike D'Antoni for not playing Isaiah Hartenstein enough or forcing Houston's hand with forward Gary Clark's waiver. However, someone who has not received enough blame from fans for his effort or lack thereof is James Harden. Harden's effort on both ends of the floor fell off of a plateau this week. In the game against Portland, Harden attempted less field goals than four other Rockets players. It completely flew under the radar how nonchalant Harden was in that game. Granted, he was being trapped for some of it, but Harden was also passive when he did get single coverage opportunities and chose not to take advantage of them.

Before the past two weeks, Harden's defense was actually fairly commendable for the Rockets. It looked like the game against Miami unlocked something in him that forced him to care on all possessions defensively. These past two weeks, however, Harden's been a statue who swipes at the ball when somebody attacks him off the dribble. C.J. McCollum completely torched him off the dribble and Lakers players did the same the next night on back cuts. Harden resorted to poking at the ball when players drove past him and it hurt the Rockets as bad as anything. On the season, the Rockets are 6.0 points per 100 possessions worse when Harden is on the floor (second to Westbrook's -6.8 points per 100 possessions).

If the Rockets continue to start Ben McLemore alongside Harden and Westbrook, at least one of those two has to become above average defensively for Houston to crack the top ten defenses in the NBA.

3. Is P.J. Tucker's shoulder going to be okay?

P.J. Tucker suffered a right shoulder stinger against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 11th after receiving a pretty hard screen from Gorgui Dieng and seemed to re-aggravate it after another hard screen, this time from veteran center Dwight Howard. Tucker has not shot the three-ball well since December 21st and an injury to his shooting shoulder can't help his prospects of getting back on track.

4. Can the Rockets win their next two home games?

If the Lakers game was a 'must-win', the next two home games against the Thunder and Nuggets are what you may call a 'super-must-win' game. If you lose both of these games, it's possible the bottom falls out from underneath and the team never recovers.

"It does put a premium on these next two games," agreed Mike D'Antoni at Sunday's practice. "But it [also] puts a premium on 'Lets get it right'. The results will take care of themselves."

The Rockets insist that internally they are calm and know how to come out of this rut because of the experience on the roster.

"We know what we need to do," said Eric Gordon. "We're an older, veteran team - we know exactly what's going, what's happening. Like I said before, it's the consistency from quarter to quarter in games."

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Houston can win series on Sunday

Timely hitting helps Astros edge out D-backs to even series

Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

The Astros had two losses over the last 24 hours; one a game against the Diamondbacks in the series opener on Friday night, the other the news that their recovering ace, Justin Verlander, announced Saturday afternoon that he is opting to undergo Tommy John surgery. The decision and surgery will likely sideline Verlander through 2021 when his current contract with Houston ends.

With that, the Astros headwinds continued to increase, meaning a win to even the series with Arizona on Saturday would be a much-needed pick-me-up. Here's how they did:

Final Score: Astros 3, Diamondbacks 2.

Record: 26-26, second in the AL West.

Winning pitcher: Enoli Paredes (3-2, 2.84 ERA).

Losing pitcher: Luke Weaver (1-8, 6.51 ERA).

D-backs score two on Javier who is pulled early

Kole Calhoun, who drove in four runs, including a home run in Friday's game, would start the scoring on Saturday with a solo home run off of Cristian Javier in the top of the second, giving Arizona an early 1-0 lead. Javier allowed another run in the top of the third, giving up a leadoff single that would move to third on a groundout then score on a sac fly, doubling the lead to 2-0.

Javier finished the third and tossed a 1-2-3 fourth, but whether it be due to a pre-determined pitch count or other situation, he would not go any further, ending his night there on just 77 pitches. His final line: 4.0 IP, 4 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 6 K, 1 HR, 77 P.

Astros grab a lead in the sixth

The Astros were able to cut the lead in half in the bottom of the third, getting a leadoff single by Josh Reddick, who would move to third after a walk and fielder's choice before scoring on an RBI-groundout by Jose Altuve, making it 2-1. Enoli Paredes was first out of Houston's bullpen, taking over for Javier in the top of the fifth and retiring six straight batters for two perfect frames.

Houston would get to Luke Weaver in the bottom of the sixth, getting a leadoff single by George Springer, who would score from first on an RBI-double by Altuve to tie the game. Altuve would come around as the go-ahead run later in the inning on an RBI-single by Kyle Tucker, knocking Weaver out of the game as the Astros took their first lead of the game, 3-2.

Houston evens the series and moves back up to .500

Josh James was the next reliever for Houston in the top of the seventh, and despite getting into a jam by issuing a one-out walk and hitting the next batter, he was able to get out of it. It was thanks to a great play by Michael Brantley, who started a double play by catching a lineout and throwing a runner out at second to end the inning.

Brooks Raley had the eighth and erased a one-out walk by retiring the next two batters to maintain the one-run lead. After a scoreless bottom of the eighth, the Astros turned to closer Ryan Pressly to get another save and finish the one-run game. Pressly would do so, as Houston would move back up to .500 and even the series 1-1 heading into the rubber game on Sunday.

Up Next: The finale of this series between Houston and Arizona, and Houston's last regular-season home game of 2020, will get underway at 1:10 PM Central on Sunday. Madison Bumgarner (0-4, 8.53) ERA will be on the mound for the D-backs, while Jose Urquidy (1-1, 2.70 ERA) will start for the Astros.

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